The Power of the Pulpit

More than six hundred years before Christ, the Word of the Lord came to a young man named Jeremiah. Those words are the text for today’s sermon.

Note in the text that Jeremiah was called by God. He was not just sent out as a teacher to face the nation on his own power. God gave Jeremiah a mission with a promise: Don’t be afraid. I will go with you.

Yet Jeremiah was filled with fears. How could he stand before the mighty people of his day? They had power and could easily do him harm. With fear and trembling, the Prophet went as God’s voice to an evil generation.

Speaking for God carries with it a word of authority. After all, it is not our opinion that we share with our people. God is speaking through us. We see this in John the Baptist’s preaching. People flocked into the wilderness to listen to him preach. His message was new and fresh as he reminded them of their sins and pointed them to Jesus as the Messiah who would take those sins away.

Luke tells us that the people were amazed at Jesus’ teaching because his message had authority.

The Word of God from the pulpit is so powerful it can change lives. I believe we sometimes fail to understand this, and so today I speak to you on the power of the pulpit.

The word pulpit, in the sense that we best understand it, is a piece of furniture usually found in a church. Jeremiah had a pulpit in that sense of the word. We can envision him standing in the synagogue preaching to the people of Israel. God’s message was clear: Repent of your sins or God will punish you!

Did the people respond? For twenty-five years, Jeremiah served as the prophet while King Josiah reigned. He was a godly leader who wanted the Jewish people to live faithfully with God. These were good years for Jeremiah. However, when Josiah died, life became difficult for the prophet. The people worshiped false gods and rejected the Word of God that came from Jeremiah’s pulpit. The inevitable happened: God punished the people of Judah, Jerusalem fell in 586 BC, and many were led away into captivity in Babylon.

The Bible brings us a message from this account of Jeremiah. We Ð the Church Ð have been given the Bible Ð God’s Word Ð through which the Almighty speaks in the Law and the Gospel. The law reveals how God wants us to live and convicts us of our sins. The gospel brings the glad tidings that Jesus Christ has come to die as a payment for our sins. If we will receive him as our Savior, our sins are forgiven and we become God’s children forever.

This is the message that Christ has commissioned his Church to share with the world. All believers are called to be his witnesses (Acts 1:8), and from this group the Holy Spirit calls some to be pastors. If these pastors, who stand in the pulpit each Sunday, are fearlessly proclaiming the message from God’s Word, many people will become believers. Paul writes, “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).

Will all those who hear this message come to faith? Some will receive Christ, and these people are his Church. Others will live and die in their sins, separated from God.

The congregation needs to hear the law each Sunday. They must know of their sins, for God has absolutes Ð rights and wrongs.

But God also has a gospel telling of his love for the world. When these two messages flow from the pastor’s lips, the pulpit is powerful. Unbelievable things happen and we see lives change.

If a congregation is convinced of the pulpit’s power, should it not guard the pulpit? I once preached in a church that had a short pew seated right under the pulpit and a reserved sign fastened to it. This caught my curiosity, so I asked one of the members who it was that occupied that pew. He told me that years ago three elders from the congregation were appointed to listen to what the preacher was saying. If, in their opinion, something was said that was contrary to the scriptures, they would ask the pastor to discuss the subject with them. This might be a bit extreme, but we have to wonder who guards the pulpit today?

In addition to being described as a piece of furniture, the word pulpit can also be described in a symbolical way, meaning a place where we expound our convictions in conversation with a group of people. Some of them may even resent what is being said and tell that person to get off their pulpit, adding that they don’t have time to listen to what is being said to them. Let me give you a personal illustration.

When our country was in the middle of fighting the Viet Nam war, one of our young men from the congregation was killed. The military allowed his body to be shown, which was a mistake in my opinion for a portion of his face had been marred. A lot of debate had been happening over whether this war would ever be won and if these young people were dying in vain. I became very emotional in my sermon one Sunday and denounced the whole Viet Nam war. I seldom let politics enter my preaching, but this had become very difficult for me. I saw this young man, who had sat in my confirmation class, now in a casket.

On Monday a member of our congregation came to my study to visit with me about my comments on the war. After hearing my explanation for preaching as I did, he said words to this effect: “Pastor, we know it is hard to control our feelings, but please do not let this happen again. We come to church to hear the Word of God. We can listen to Walter Cronkite tell us about the war on the evening news.”

He spoke with a loving spirit, but delivered a firm message. He was rightly guarding the pulpit.

The word pulpit can also be used in a symbolical way. It is the time and place where you are speaking, perhaps with some emotion. It can be a time when we express our convictions to others, such as a parent correcting their child. You may have a child who wants to stay home from church on Sunday morning. He feels it should be decision whether or not to attend church. After all, he is now fourteen years old and should be old enough to make up his own mind what he wants to do on Sunday morning. This bothers his parents so they tell him why, in their family, people go to church each Sunday morning, and that will be the rule for him as long as he lives at home.

Think of the times in life when you can use your pulpit to express your convictions. Consider the opportunities Christians in politics have to use their pulpits to point the nation to Christ alone as the answer to many of our most difficult problems. How sad it is when pulpits remain silent and God’s Word is not heard.

Think of the pulpits on both Wall Street and Main Street. What an opportunity for influential business leaders to share their Christian witness! Who knows what a Word from God could mean at an opportune time.

History reveals the many pulpits Christ has scattered all over the world. How they have proven their power when men and women’s lives are changed as they come to know Christ as their Savior and Lord.

If we are convinced that God’s Word has given us a message that needs to be heard, let the voice of the Lord ring out from our pulpits and see how powerful that word can be in changing our world.

How Great Is Your Commitment?

In evangelical Christianity, we talk a great deal about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We experience Christ’s presence in a very personal way through the Word and in prayer.

If you live in a personal relationship with Christ, do you ever ask yourself how strong is that relationship? I pray this sermon will help you give serious thought to this question.

It was the Sabbath in our text, and the faithful were flocking to their synagogues. Most of the worshipers were expecting the service to be routine. Jesus was present, and he was known as the man who ran the carpenter shop in Nazareth. The rabbi had done his part of the service, and now others could stand up and make their contribution to the worship experience.

The attendant handed Jesus a scroll from the prophet Isaiah, and Jesus read, “The spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor . . . Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus was telling them that it was a new day. He came to preach good news to the poor. He was speaking not just to those who were financially poor, but also those who had a poor outlook for the future. Jesus knew how incapable they were to meet life head-on and face the difficulties that would come upon them.

Jesus would bring good news to those who were spiritual prisoners. Their sins had taken their freedom away. They were spiritually blind and did not know the difference between right and wrong. They would have their spiritual eyes opened and be led by Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

This was the beginning of a new day. Jesus announced that he is the promised Messiah, and his suffering began with their reaction, which started with a mild disbelief and ended with a furious anger leading to an attempt at executing him. They viewed Jesus as a heretic and a false prophet; a dangerous person and had to be killed. That became the conviction of his enemies, and their goal was met when Jesus was crucified at Calvary.

It is at this point that we must ask ourselves how serious is our commitment to Jesus as he presents himself as our only Savior and God. He never would have been sent to the cross if he had only claimed to be a great teacher and a fine moral example.

Many people, even some in our churches who sit in the pew or stand in the pulpit, deny his divinity. Jesus as a great religious leader, is as far as they will go. The rest is irrational.

Jesus’ own people rebelled against the thought that he alone could grant the forgiveness of our sins and assure us of a heavenly home. Though this teaching came from his own lips, it is often not the primary subject being proclaimed on Sunday morning.

Jesus taught us how to live, how to love our enemies. Yet many people, throughout their lifetime, carry hatred against those who have offended them in some way. We sing, “Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to thee,” yet we are so busy with life that we have little time to give of our time and talents. Jesus tells us to be his witnesses, and many life a lifetime without seriously talking to others about their relationship with the Lord Jesus.

How great is our commitment?

We all would like to admit that much growth is needed in our commitment to him, but as we examine our lives, we can say with Paul that God is at work in our lives. We have not arrived where we want to be, but we press on. Neither are we satisfied with our commitment to our Savior, but neither are we discouraged for we feel his presence.

Peter had his weak moments. Do you remember that night in Herod’s courtyard when he denied ever knowing Jesus? But a few weeks later this same man was a fearless witness for his Lord. This is how a relationship with Jesus can grow.

We live with him in his Word.

On the Way to Calvary

When did you first hear the story of Jesus turning water into wine? Did it make any lasting impression on you?

I first heard the story told by a woman who was a natural-born storyteller. Her name was Mary Thompson, and she was a Sunday school teacher in our congregation. To the best of my knowledge she had, at the most, a high school education, but her gift of making Bible stories come alive in the minds and hearts of children was wonderful. I was one of these children.

This story is so real and true in my heart that I am angered when I learn that some theology professor told his students that it was an “imaginary legend” that illustrates a truth much deeper than turning water into wine.

For Christian people who take the Bible seriously, this is an inspired story told by John years after it happened. To see Jesus change water into wine was an experience that the disciple never forgot. This miracle teaches us for the first time that Jesus is divine and that He has power to change people’s lives.

First, let’s look at the story.

Jesus and his disciples attended a wedding in Cana of Galilee, a town very close to Nazareth where Jesus grew up. During the wedding, Mary came and informed Jesus they’d run out of wine. Using language that communicates today, Jesus said to His mother, “I’ll take care of it.” Then he told his servants to fill the jugs with water. When they had been filled to the brim, Jesus told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.” The master tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He didn’t realize where it had come from, but the servants knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now” (John 2:1-10).

Now listen to verse eleven, which gives the purpose for the miracle: “This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him” (John 2:11).

This miracle revealed Jesus’ divine power. He was on His way to Calvary there to die for us. That’s why Jesus came to earth. What caused Jesus’ death from a human point of view? His claim to be the divine Son of God.

The professor was wrong when he told his students that this story of Jesus was an imaginary legend, but he was right when he taught that the miracle points to bigger changes than turning water into wine. It teaches that Jesus can work change in our lives.

The story is told of two men discussing this miracle, when one says, “I love that story of Jesus turning water into wine, even though one can hardly believe that it happened.” The other replies, “I know it happened, because in my life Jesus changed whiskey into food.”

The man who had experienced this miracle of change in his life was once an alcoholic.

Then Christ met him in the Word and he was converted. No longer did he spend his paycheck on booze, but instead on the needs of his family.

Jesus can change us from unbelievers to believers, from living in despair to living with hope, from being people difficult to get along with to those with loving personalities. He can change us from seeing our lives in terms of seeking to fulfill our wishes to instead asking, “What is God’s purpose in my life?”

All of these changes are possible, but I wonder if we ever see Jesus as the Son of God working changes within us until we see Him first touching our lives. Let me illustrate this point.

Ray was a nice man, but not a Christian. One day he attended the funeral of an old girlfriend. In the funeral sermon, I mentioned that the deceased had one wish. It was her prayer that at least one person at the service would be converted. Carefully, I placed before the congregation God’s only way of salvation: by receiving Christ who had died and risen so that our sins could be forgiven. Through those words the Spirit spoke in Ray’s life and he became a committed believer in Christ as the Savior of the world. He was a new man with Christ working daily changes in his life.

Prior to that day, Ray never gave Jesus serious thought, but on that day the Holy Spirit said to him, “Ray, hear these words. You can be a changed man.” From that day on he was one of God’s children. He continues to see life with new meaning and purpose.

Another professor whom I was privileged to have a teacher at seminary told us one day, “I cannot promise you a job that will pay a large salary and give you an easy life, but I can promise you a life that is filled with excitement and satisfaction as you see God at work in people’s lives.”

There are those days when life is hard, but Jesus comes to us with good words that can make life bearable. This miracle tells us that Jesus has divine power to make big changes in our lives; He stands waiting to work in our lives, which are always in need of changing.

The Day You Were Baptized

The day one is baptized is an important part of a Christian’s faith story. Christians have not always agreed on how baptism is to be done or when it should take place, but there is an agreement that it has an important part in our salvation.

John distinguishes between his baptism and Christian baptism. His might be called a pre-Christian baptism. He said, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I (Jesus) . . . will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3:16). Tom Wright, the British theologian, helps me with making this distinction when he writes, “John’s baptism symbolized a commitment that they would be God’s Israel. They would be the light of the world, those who were beginning a new life with God.”

Paul also distinguished between the two baptisms when he called John’s version a “baptism of repentance” (Acts 19:4). The Bible tells us that, when the Apostle found some believers in Ephesus, he asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered that they had not heard of the Holy Spirit. When Paul asked what baptism they received, they replied, “John’s baptism.” Paul then told them, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them (Acts 19:1-6).

Christian baptism was first practiced after Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit made his appearance to the people in Jerusalem, and the disciples were sent out to make disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching them. Many churches believe that includes children. Therefore these congregations practice infant baptism. The majority of mainline Protestant churches, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Orthodox Church practice infant baptism.

Think of the day you were baptized. To help you draw this mental picture, let me use myself as an example.

My family brought me to the church when I was just a baby. Obviously, since I was an infant, I have to imagine what that day was like. Addressing my parents and two sponsors, the pastor said, “In Christian love you have presented this child for Holy Baptism. You should, therefore, teach him the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. See that as he grows in years you place in his hands the Holy Scriptures, bring him to the services of God’s house, and provide for his instruction in the Christian faith; that abiding in the covenant of his baptism and in communion with the Church, he may be brought up to lead a godly life until the day of Jesus Christ. I therefore call upon you to answer in his stead . . .”

At this time, the pastor asked my parents and sponsors to confess their faith in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Then came the personal question: “Do you present this child to be baptized into the Christian faith?” And they answered, “We do.”

At that time the baptism took place, with three handfuls of water scooped onto my head along with the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

The service closed with a blessing and prayer. A large certificate was given to my parents on that day. That certificate was framed and hung over my bed until I left home. When I was ordained, my parents gave me that certificate, and it hung on the wall of my study throughout my ministry. It was a good reminder of the day God made me his child.

The Holy Spirit was placed in my heart on the day of my baptism, but it was just the beginning of his work in my unconscious being. As I grew, he awakened me to the salvation provided by Christ through his suffering and death. My parents were given the awesome responsibility of being my teachers, through whom the Spirit would work.

By the grace of God I have remained in that baptismal covenant. However, a time came when I consciously had to enter into a personal relationship with Christ as my Savior and Lord. Had my parents or someone else not been that instrument through whom the Holy Spirit worked faith in my soul, my baptism would have been of little meaning. Many have been baptized as infants and are lost today.

Others have a different story to tell. Along the way their parents might have been negligent and failed to keep their promise to teach the child. They may have grown up and walked away from Christ. Or perhaps the parents were faithful, but the child eventually rejected Christ and wanted nothing to do with him or the Church. This person is the prodigal and needs to be converted. Then the same Savior who met him at his baptismal font will receive him back as His child forever. Remember, God never left the person. It is the person who left God.

Millions of other Christians practice a believer’s baptism. These brothers and sisters interpret the Scripture differently. They believe a person first must come into a relationship with Jesus as Savior, and confess their faith in Christ prior to baptism. In some cases, they will first give testimony of this belief to the church. To mention two of these believers, we turn to St. Paul, who was converted on the Damascus Road and baptized in Ananias’ home. Another is the Philippian jailer, who was baptized by Paul and Silas in a jail.

While we are one in Jesus Christ, brothers and sisters in the faith have an honest difference in our understanding of the Bible’s teaching on baptism. I have been told that Billy Graham, a Baptist, was baptized as an adult. His wife Ruth, a Presbyterian, was baptized as an infant. They had their differences regarding baptism, but they were one in Christ. Some of these differences will be cleared only when we get to heaven.

Whatever time and way in your life you were baptized, remember that day, but realize it was only the beginning of a glorious relationship with Jesus. That relationship will continue to grow as you walk with him in word and prayer through the good and bad days of your entire life’s journey.

Is Everyone Saved?

The years slip by rapidly. Soon it seems we are running out of time, and we wonder where the years have gone. The question of whether there is life after death moves to the forefront of our minds. The Bible assures us there is life after death. Listen to Jesus in that familiar passage: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Jesus is telling us that in him we have eternal, everlasting life.

In another passage, Jesus is visiting his friend Martha. Her brother has just died. Jesus says to her, “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:26). Jesus is here again asserting that there is life after death. We live for a few years here, we die, and then we live again.

St. Paul believed this with a passion. He said, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Here Paul is saying that, of course, there is life after death. He likes being here on this earth, but the true reward comes at death when the heavenly home with Christ will become reality. He also wrote to the Corinthian church, “Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands” (2 Corinthians 5:1). It is necessary for Paul to know he will continue to live after his last breath is gone.

That brings us to the next question: Is everyone saved?

By using that beautiful, biblical word, saved, we really mean, is everyone going to heaven? Are everyone’s sins forgiven?

No. Not everyone is going to heaven. That is the doctrine of universalism. Many would indeed answer that we are all God’s children, and a loving God would not punish any of his children eternally. They would say that everyone is going to heaven. We often hear this when someone has died after much suffering and heartache. We mention how much better off he is now with no mention of faith. Why do we assume this person is going to heaven? It comes from our emotions. We just want to feel that Dad, who was never a churchgoer and regularly profaned God, is out of his misery and has gone to be with Mother in heaven.

Listen to our text: “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God Ð children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:11-14).

It is clear in our text today that Jesus came to suffer and die in order to offer salvation and life with him forever. But his people rejected him! They refused to receive him. To those who did believe, though, he gave the right to become children of God. He reaches out to all, but only those who trust him are going to have eternal life. We think of the passage, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

It is clearly taught in the Bible: we are only saved in Christ Jesus. People are going to either heaven or hell.

What we believe about eternity affects our whole life. What the congregation believes sets the whole tone for how to minister. If everyone is saved, why reach out with the Gospel?

I once visited with a young friend who had just finished preaching. I asked him how many people he believed could have listened to the sermon that did not have a personal relationship with Jesus and weren’t going to heaven?

He replied that he thought perhaps 95 percent of the listeners were going to heaven and believed in Jesus Christ.

I, on the other hand, would put it at 50 percent. We should have some idea, when we prepare a sermon, of who we are going to preach to, and I felt that half of the listeners, though raised in Christian homes and even regular churchgoers, still did not understand what the Christian gospel is about.

It is necessary for the pulpit to preach to the lost! This has been forgotten. Instead, we seem to assume everyone is saved. It is important for us to share our faith, to practice justice, love, and peace, to do good works, and so forth. But the primary reason for a sermon is to reach a person who is lost and outside of Christ. That is the Gospel!

That is the primary reason Jesus came.

Works are important. We should put an emphasis on justice; we must be people of love and peace, anxious to do good works. But towering over all of these messages is the one that says Jesus has come into this world to save sinners through his vicarious suffering and death at the cross at Calvary and through his glorious resurrection.

I belonged to a social club in my community for fifty years. I loved it Ð I served as president, participated in service projects, and could sense in the club a real passion for people. Our focus was on eradicating polio in third world countries. We also had a scholarship program that was very successful. In this club, I never heard a word about salvation or life after death, nor should I have Ð that’s not what this club was set up to do; instead, it was a place to focus on bettering the community and the world.

But the church goes beyond that. Church is not another Sunday morning service club. It is the body of Jesus Christ proclaiming the truth that Christ and Christ alone can bring you salvation. The Church’s primary ministry is to be used by the Holy Spirit to bring the message of Jesus Christ in order that people might be saved. By entering into a personal relationship with Jesus through faith they will live waiting for the time when they will go to live with the Lord.

Now some might ask if receiving Jesus Christ a matter of works. If so, we’re not saved completely by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

Paul said our salvation was by faith alone. We also remember he said we have to receive it. We’ve just gone through Christmas, and I’m sure that many of you received wrapped packages from your loved ones. These wnere gifts you were given, but before they could be of any value to you they must be opened and received.

In the same way, if you invite me to dinner, it is a gift. However, I must first acknowledge the invitation. On the other hand, if you offer to give me dinner in return for shoveling your walk, then I am receiving something only because I have worked for it.

We do nothing for our salvation. That is a complete gift from God. When he offers it to me, all I do, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is reach out and say, Thank you, God.

Others might ask if I am being judgmental. Who am I to say who goes to heaven and who does not?

That is completely in the hands of God Himself. I say only what Jesus Christ told me to say. If you trust Jesus Christ, you will have life after death. He is the way to the heavenly mansion. It is up to God who is saved. We do not know what will happen in a particular person’s life before they die, but life everlasting is in Jesus Christ alone.

There is no question we are running out of time. The years tick by quickly. I pray for each of us that this may be a glorious new year in 2010, a time when we are enriched in body, soul and mind. May it be a time when we know Jesus Christ is walking with us and we will know that when we finally go to our home above, we are going to be with him forever. Remember that, in Christ, you have a home beyond the grave.